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Tales of tales gone wrong

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I knew a guy who based all of his decisions on colorful anecdotes he’d amassed over a lifetime of varied experiences. He succeeded at everything he tried. Let me tell you about him.

Let’s pretend I actually did know a person like this, and that I had enough imagination, creativity, and recursion to turn their life into an anecdote about how relying on anecdotes works really, really well. Would you find my conclusion convincing?

Of course not. Turning the famous quote around, the KJR community recognizes that anecdote isn’t the singular of data.

But unconsciously turning a vivid anecdote into a trend or truth is an easy cognitive trap to fall into, even for the wary.

We’re still thinking about thinking – a big subject. Interestingly enough, my haphazard (as opposed to random) research found an order of magnitude more sources listing different forms of fallacious thinking than provided tools for thinking well.

We’ve been exploring some of these over the past few weeks. This week: what I call “anti-anecdotal thinking” but should probably call “anti-anti-anecdotal thinking.”

Start with what anecdotes aren’t: Evidence that some idea or other is valid.

Bigotry relies on anecdotes-as-evidence. The bigot finds something heinous that happened and identifies as perpetrator a member of a group the bigot doesn’t like. The bigot relates the anecdote as proof all members of the group are horrible sub-human beings and we need to do something about them.

Extrapolate from an anecdote and you’re performing statistics on a sample size of one. It’s worthless.

But that doesn’t mean anecdotes are worthless.

Anecdotes are akin to analogies. Using either one to persuade violates the rules of logic. But they’re excellent tools for illustrating and clarifying your meaning.

Anecdotes serve another useful purpose as well: While generalizing from an anecdote is bad statistics, using an anecdote to demonstrate that the seeming impossible is, in fact, achievable can make all kinds of sense, as explained in “Look to the Outliers” (Sujata Gupta, Science News, 2/26/2022):

Northern Somalia’s economy relies heavily on livestock. About 80 percent of the region’s annual exports are meat, milk and wool from sheep and other animals. Yet years of drought have depleted the region’s grazing lands. By zeroing in on a few villages that have defied the odds and maintained healthy rangelands, an international team of researchers is asking if those rare successes might hold the secret to restoring rangelands elsewhere.

The article adds: Statistically speaking, success stories like those Somali villages with sustainable grazing are the outliers, says Basma Albanna, a development researcher at the University of Manchester in England. “The business as usual is that when you have outliers in data, you take them out.

Investigating outliers can offer new and valuable insights.

Anecdotes don’t necessarily describe outliers. But just as “Man bites dog” is news while “Dog bites man” isn’t, there’s rarely much point to relating an anecdote that describes the ordinary.

Combining anti-anecdotal and anti-anti-anecdotal thinking into a single merged thought process is a useful way to explore a subject:

Anecdote: The media would have you believe ransomware is a huge problem. But I talked to a CIO whose company was hit. He told me they just restored everything from backup and were up and running in a day.

Anecdotal thinking: Once again we’re being lied to by the lamestream media! Ransomware is the new Y2K – a bogus non-crisis pushed by IT to inflate its budget.

Anti-anecdote response: Anyone can relate an anecdote. That doesn’t mean it really happened. Even if it did, that doesn’t mean restoring from backups is all any company has to do to avoid being damaged by an attack. We’ll stick with our best-practices program.

Anti-anti-anecdote response: Most likely this is just an anecdote. But it would be worth finding out if an IT shop truly has figured out a simple way to recover from a ransomware attack, and if so, if their situation is typical enough that other companies can benefit from their experience.

Bob’s last word: This week’s punchline is simple. If someone uses an anecdote to try to convince of something, skepticism should rule the day. But if they use one to try to convince you something is possible, don’t reject it out of hand. It’s as Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine advised: “The rub … is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Bob’s sales pitch: My formula for deciding what to write about each week includes, seasonally enough, four questions: (1) Do readers care about the subject? (2) Do I know anything about it? (3) Do I have anything original to say about it? And, (4) have I written about it recently?

I have 2, 3, and 4 covered. But it sure would help if you’d write to suggest subjects you’d like me to cover.

Comments (3)

  • An investigated outlier that comes to mind occurred fifty years ago. National Inquirer was a premiere source for sensational conspiracy BS in the pre-Qanon era. But for one event, they scooped regular news services, almost. They reported mass livestock deaths in Utah. In the article, they claimed they’d asked the Army if nearby facilities had anything to do with it, and accepted the Army’s denial. The article then went on to explain that aliens were planned to subjugate Earth, but the atmosphere of the world the aliens came from was poisonous, and they needed to slowly change Earth’s atmosphere so people would adapt. An accidental overdose of alien atmosphere was the cause of death. The article mentioned nearby UFO sightings as evidence for the theory.

    In short, the event was real, and even as they paid off the livestock holders, the Army maintained “It wasn’t us.” Some rocks need a lot of turning over.

  • Alternate-anti-anti-anecdote response: This anecdote, if it’s true, illustrates that it’s REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT to have a data backup arrangement in place. It’s not just about possessing backup gadgets/software/bandwidth, and about purchasing recording media (or cloud storage space); it’s also about business capacity planning, and planning for honest-to-gosh data explosions, and about media rotation on-site/off-site, and about having TWO cloud backup services, and about culling useless/obsolete data, and about ACTUALLY CHECKING that the backups are being done. Also about having periodic tests that restoration actually works.

    Also about making very sure that YOU DON’T HAVE TO DELETE THE ONE-AND-ONLY ORIGINAL IN ORDER TO HAVE ENOUGH ROOM IN WHICH TO TEST THE RESTORE. Just in case the test-restore fails. Which implies: if your backup/restore system does NOT allow for partial restores, but only complete ones, then your first-tier live storage must ALWAYS be more than 50% empty.

    I’ll give you ONE GUESS how someone I worked with long ago discovered the importance of that last one!

    More in this vein… from an early-internet-era ad for IBM Global Services:

    “We used to run the backup at night when nobody was on the system. But now, on the internet, there is no night. Therefore there is no good time to do it.”

    Tagline: “You are SO READY for IBM Global Services.”

  • Nice article in this series, but remember anecdotal thinking is a style of thinking and of communicating, neither better nor worse than others. If it was good enough for Jesus and His parables, maybe we can also put stories to good use, especially when talking to people outside of IT for whom our technical facts and stats are just so much noise in a boring meeting.

    Know your audience and come to the meeting or conversation armed with 5 or 6 true stories to illuminate the points you most want to make to other decision makers. Anecdotes often carry a real emotional punch, so like a tactile nuke, use as needed, but with precision and limited frequency, if it is not your natural thinking style.

    Pro Tip: Test your stories on some non-technical person to see if your stories have the desired effect (and affect!) We all have blind spots.

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